War/Words (Part One)
Perspective is everything. But, we should remember Edmund Husserl’s wise observation that “all perception is a gamble”. We want to trust the facts but, as Nietzsche put it in the late 1800s, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” So, understanding how NATO members, Russia and China may see things very very differently is of the utmost importance if we are to avoid a geopolitical catastrophe. Let’s consider the current backdrop of real-world events and commentary which are absolutely not hypothetical.
In case you missed it, the threats of war are flying around faster than fighter jets in recent days. On January 3rd, in an incredibly rare joint statement, the P5 superpowers, Russia, China France the UK and the US, said, “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
This might normally be seen as part of the slow and ongoing effort to return to nuclear arms reduction talks. But the recently appointed Chief of the Defence Staff in the UK, Admiral Sir Tony Radikin, said that the cutting of the undersea internet cables in Norway on January 7th could be seen as “an act of war”. It seems that someone cut one of the two core internet cables in Norway (Svalbard) that supply the International Space Station and many commercial and military satellites. NATO clearly suspects that it was done by Russian submarines. In response, NATO’s Secretary-General said there is “a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe”.
This was why the US and Russia agreed to sit down and discuss things in the Strategic Stability Dialogue at the meetings of the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Remember Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s words on January 7th. He had said, “We’re prepared to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression. But a diplomatic solution is still possible and preferable, if Russia chooses it.” They didn’t. Instead, the Russians walked away, describing the talks over Ukraine as at a “dead end”. Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said, “We're facing a crisis in European security. The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill.”
On January 13th, The Polish Foreign Minister put it more starkly. He said, "It seems that the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years”. “For several weeks we have been faced with the prospect of a major military escalation in Eastern Europe.”
On January 14th, Ukraine was hit by severe cyberattacks on 70+ government sites. All warned Ukrainians, "be afraid and expect the worst".
It’s not that we weren’t warned. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister and other EU Foreign Ministers issued a statement back in mid-December which revealed their fear that Russia was “gearing up for war”. The Latvian Defence Minister announced on January 6th that it would start sending military weapons to Ukraine” to allow Ukraine to defend itself. By January 9th, Ukraine’s Generals had given an interview to the New York Times and spelled out the situation from their perspective. Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, who heads Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said, “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces.”
But, what is the Russian view? It hasn’t changed for some time. The Russian Ambassador to Washington spelled everything out back in December. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, outlined Russia’s position clearly in the December 2021 issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, He said,
“The situation is extremely dangerous. No one should doubt our determination to defend our security. Everything has its limits. If our partners continue to build military-strategic realities that endanger the existence of our country, we will be forced to create similar vulnerabilities for them. We have reached the point where we have no more room to retreat. The military exploration of Ukraine by NATO member states is an existential threat to Russia. Urgent action is needed.”
That’s when we transitioned into “jaw jaw”. Talks between the US and Russia began. But, three days later they collapsed, raising the question, are we drifting from “jaw jaw” to “war war”? The FT fears this, which is why they felt compelled to write an editorial begging for everyone to stop with the madness called “The Folly of a New Russian War in Ukraine”.
Yet, the madness is in motion. Now we see Twitter and social media full of references to military equipment being moved, mainly on trains, from across Russia, in the direction of Ukraine.
“This is the 5th train that passed us in 3 days” with a train loaded with tanks.
As of January 14th, the WSJ started to feel confident enough about all this to run the headline: “Russia Moves More Weaponry Toward Ukraine. Keeps West Guessing: Tanks, missile launchers and other materiel are seen being shifted Westward from bases in the Russian Far East.”
The day before, on January 13th, Forbes ran this headline: “The Russian Army Doesn’t Have Enough Trucks to Defeat Ukraine Fast”. The author, David Axe specializes in “ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles, and satellites” according to his Forbes by-line profile. So, this isn’t an algorithm or an ingenue writing. On January 15th, Reuters wrote: “Exclusive: US talks to energy firms on EU gas supply in case of Russia-Ukraine conflict.” Europe has been increasingly dependent on Russian gas supplies given various decisions to end nuclear energy and . The article says the US side is concerned about, “contingency plans for supplying natural gas to Europe if conflict between Russia and Ukraine disrupts Russian supplies”. Bloomberg outlined the drivers of potential supply issues back in November: Storage was low and the US Congress had been actively opposed Russia’s planned Nordstream 2 pipeline expansion at least until last July. Russia’s response has been as the NYTs said, “As Europe Faces a Cold Winter, Putin Seizes on the Leverage From Russia’s Gas Output: Critics claim Russia is manipulating the flow of gas to push up prices, but for Vladimir Putin it’s schadenfreude over Western European nations that he sees as unprepared.”
Remember at least a third of all gas for Western Europe passes through Ukraine. Germany alone depends on natural gas imports for something like 90% of its needs and only 5% of global reserves are held in Europe. Russia’s new hotly contested Nordstream 2 pipeline extension will allow Russian gas to bypass Ukraine altogether. See: The Pipeline at the Center of Geopolitical Drama.
So, for all these reasons all eyes are on Ukraine. But, is this really about Ukraine? It is easy to assume that all this hot language and movement of munitions is strictly a function of the immediate threat in the Ukraine. 100,000+ Russian troops that have been massing on the Ukrainian border. Many had assumed that Putin was bluffing. Guardian’s world affairs editor, Julian Borger, said, “it is clear now that Russia was not using its troop build-up and its demands about NATO as a bluff to achieve gains on other matters. The three meetings this week have provided opportunities for Russia to take an off-ramp and find a face-saving solution, but Moscow has not taken them.”
This is in large part because the problem here may not be exclusively about Ukraine. It is about Russia’s perception that they are being encroached upon in every direction. It is about NATO and Russias perception that each is testing the other from the Black Sea to the Arctic and beyond. As an example, last year on March 29th it seems that NATO intercepted or shadowed six different groups of Russian bombers (Tu-95 Bear Bombers and Tu-160 Blackjack Bombers) that simultanerously flew into or near NATO airspace across “the North Atlantic, North Sea, Black Sea and Baltic Sea” all at the same time. NATO jets were scrambled in response in Norway, the UK, Belgium, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Spain. This prompted Brigadier General Andrew Hansen, the Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at Allied Air Command, Ramstein, Germany to say, “Intercepting multiple groups of Russian aircraft demonstrates NATO forces' readiness and capability to guard Allied skies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year."
Are Russia and the West gearing up for a confrontation in Ukraine? Or, is Ukraine merely one front in a much larger potential conflagration that already stretches from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea? In the West, we may want to focus on Ukraine because its easier to do one thing at a time. But President Putin is coinnecting the dots between the military events he sees across a wide range of geographies from the Arctic to Albania and from Scandinavia to the Sulwalki Gap. Don’t miss (my father) Ambassador Harald Malmgren’s recent piece on Putin’s thought process. If all perception is a gamble, as Husserl said, then we’d better be sure we understand the varying and possibly irreconcilable perceptions that are leading us into this firestorm of rhetorical references to war. That means understanding the bigger picture of where and why events are occuring.
The next installment in this series adddresses this. War/Where (Part 2)
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